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  November 5, 2001

Proposed General Education Requirements
Come Under Discussion

After two hours of back-and-forth debate regarding the merits of the writing portion of current and proposed general education requirements, the University Senate last Monday decided to pause for reflection, and adjourned the debate until Nov. 26.

It was the Senate's first wide-ranging discussion of proposed new general education requirements. Brought before the University's academic rules-making body by the Senate's Curricula and Courses Committee, faculty, students, and staff began dissecting the document - and an amendment proposed by faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences - which, among other things, calls on students to achieve competency in five skill areas before graduation.

The skill areas are: computer technology, writing, quantitative reasoning, second languages, and information

literacy. For most of the five, a brief outline of how students, faculty and their departments should get there is prescribed: basic entrance expectations, some discussion of course content, and brief, but broad definitions of how to measure proficiency upon a student's departure from UConn.

Besides the competencies, the proposal also offers a section discussing content areas within which general education courses should be designated, and a section discussing how the University should implement and oversee the program. Each of the three sections will be discussed and voted on separately by the Senate.

General education requirements, in place at UConn since the 1980s, are intended to provide all students with a broad-based education before they graduate. But many faculty believe the current requirements need updating, particularly the sections regarding writing requirements. Faculty say currently designated "W" (writing) courses are regularly overbooked, shutting out many students who need to take them. Other faculty and some students complain they take certain courses not for their content or because they're interested in the subject, but simply because they carry the "W" or "Q" (quantitative) designation.

"We don't take writing courses to learn how to write, but because we have to take them to get out. We don't take them for content, to learn, but to graduate," said Chris Hattayer, a student representati ve on the Senate.

That, some said, is exactly why general education requirements exist - to broaden student learning to areas they otherwise would not have explored.

The current debate began several years ago when then vice provost for undergraduate education and instruction Susan Steele and a task force she assembled delivered a sweeping new set of requirements to the Senate's Curricula and Courses Committee last November. Meeting weekly, that committee discussed the issues with dozens of faculty, staff and administrators and, in May, introduced to the full Senate a new version of the requirements.

The new package strives to remain simple, says C&CC Chair Gary English.

Last Monday's debate centered on sections of the committee's proposal that writing and quantitative skills be "embedded" in all courses approved as filling the general education requirements. Each should carry either a "W" or "Q" designation, with students required to take several of each during their term at UConn, similar to the current requirement. Faculty from the liberal arts, however, saying there has been insufficient evaluation of the current requirements, suggested maintaining the status quo until better information could be extracted.

Many Senate members, however, said it was clear the current system was not working. Indeed, it was problems associated with the previous set of requirements that led to the creation of the task force in 1999.

Although technically discussing whether to vote for or against the CLAS amendment, the debate quickly moved to a discussion about writing skills and resources.

Teaching students to write is a difficult task, one that cannot be properly accomplished in large classes, leading some to suggest that "W" courses be instituted only in upper division courses. That brought a flurry of comments and discussion regarding when best to begin the process of teaching students to write. It also prompted discussion about resources.

"Writing is an art. It is a very important aspect of any communication, " said Bruce Stave, a professor of history. "The question is how do we bring this art, this competency, to our students? I have a feeling that it cannot be taught if it devolves to (freshman and sophomore) courses that are very large. It requires small classes. It requires more resources."

Although she did not disagree with Stave's call for small classes or additional resources, Carol Polifroni, an associate professor of nursing, said she and the entire nursing faculty oppose the CLAS amendment calling for the status quo. She said they support the Curriculum and Courses Committee's proposal, because it would require students to earn at least six credits in "W" courses during their first two years at UConn. The School of Nursing is an upper division school.

Polifroni said she believes the committee's proposal to involve students in writing classes early in their career will ensure that the school's incoming students "will have some capability to write," when they start the nursing curriculum.

The proposal by the Curriculum and Courses Committee suggests that in courses designated with a "W," including those for freshmen and sophomores, students be required to write a minimum of 12 pages of material. The proposal also calls on the University to provide the resources needed to assign teaching assistants to the courses to help with large classes. This also proved to be a bone of some contention, with some faculty questioning graduate students' writing abilities. Others noted that one of the proposal's basic tenets was that faculty should teach the courses wherever possible.

Richard Veilleux